Rating - 7/B
This poor little album gets no respect at all. The major argument made against it is the presence of David Coverdale. I'm not a particular fan of Coverdale's work either, he has a good, powerful voice but little taste or subtlety in general. He broke Deep Purple (Ritchie and heroin helped). He's also responsible for some really corny (but fun) 80s hair metal, and that's an immediate black mark in the hipster score book. But really, especially if you happen to like Led Zeppelin, don't you automatically have a tolerance for often-obnoxious cock-rocking vocalists with a dubious lyrical ability? Or is it just that Percy's hair was naturally blond and Coverdale dyed? Of course, Plant does seem to have matured over the years, and this album sees Coverdale as the same old cartoony, overblown rock-star he always was, but then again his voice is in a lot better form than Plant's at the time and since. Sure, he imitates a lot of Plant's mannerisms, especialy the more annoying ones, but that is a criticism you can level at every single post-Zep hard rock singer, so drop it. What, was Page supposed to collaborate with Billy Corgan for a back-to-basics project?
I think the real complaint being levelled against this album is that there's no sops to the times here - no alternative or electronic elements, just big, bright production, the same old hard rocking themes and forms, in short, no new twists on the old formula. Well, hell. I'm all happy that Page and Plant did that whole east-meets-west gig on Unledded, that Page and Plant's studio album was a restrained and credibly old-guys-rocking-in-a-grown-up-way album and that Plant is singing about things other than his lemon these days, but was anything actually wrong with the formula crafted on those first 3 Led Zep albums? Anything intrinsically wrong, I mean, apart from the fact that it is a specific, limited formula and one that has been somewhat tarnished by excessive crappy imitators? If you think so, this really isn't the album for you. I fully appreciate that, and wouldn't try to shove it down anyone's throat who wasn't attuned to these particular sorts of basic rock n' roll values.
Okay, that's out of the way. Now let me point out one of the best things about this album: one Mister Jimmy Page. He honestly sounds more engaged and interesting than at any point since sometime around Physical Graffitti or Presence. He's not trying any ideas he didn't already try back then, but he's having so much fun. The hard bits groove and the soft bits soar, there's a lot of snotty, raunchy blues rock, a power ballad here and there and a few pretentious epicy things of varying interest. He layers a variety of guitars and generally sounds tight, happy and productive. Certainly a lot less tethered-down than on that po-faced Walking Into Clarksdale album with it's dry-as-dust production and 'we must act our age' imperatives.
Remmeber how Custard Pie on Physical Graffiti had that broken up, groovy thing where the same or a similar line is played at regular intervals, with solid gaps in between and a rock-solid drum beat underneath? Catchy as hell, wasn't it? well, it seems Jimmy Page thinks so, too. He recreates that Custard Pie stomp a lot here. On both the opening songs in fact. Shake My Tree starts with a slow passage where Coverdale moans and groans like a man drowning in whiskey, but then it takes off with the grooves. Waiting On You is the same, only this time the some of the refrains bring in the softer touch. The only real complaint is that Coverdale sounds really shrill and over-cocky at times. Take Me For A Little While is a picture-perfect power ballad, and even has a nice solo. Coverdale is great at these lower-register things and fortunately shows some taste and restraint for once. Pride And Joy takes a freakily catchy and groovy little acoustic thing and builds it into another latter-era cock rock classic. I spent days humming the verses from this one after I first heard it, and I don't really consider it tio have been time ill-spent.
After that, things do tend to settle into a much of a muchness. Feeling Hot is a disposable arena rocker with a truly despicable vocal -um - performance. Over Now has more power-balladish overtones. Plant kicks off Easy Does It With a great acoustic rhythm with gorgeous little touches overdubbed on various guitars, and then plunges into that Patented Kusstaerd Pye Stomp again. Okay, there's a complaint. Just a little much of that pie flying around here, what? Take a Look at Yourself sounds more Whitesnake than Zep, but that's not really a good thing. It's not a bad song though, just too ecstatic-lovey and string-drenched. At least one of the last three songs - Don't Leave Me This Way, Absolution Blues and Whisper A Prayer For The Dying - is better than the others, but I can't be sure which one. They're all so overlong and epickal they tend to blend into each other. A little more imagination and variety from the hired-gun rhythm players might have helped here, but whatever. Oh, Absolution Blues does have a great riff on it. Lots of these songs do. If Page had carried on with this sort of line-up and a regular schedule he may have emerged as the sort of evergreen riff-mongering perennial Tony Iommi has come to be thought of as. Then again, overproduction is rarely a good idea.
The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: Yes, it's basically ersatz Zep, but one of the masqueraders is His Crowleyian Majestickness Jimmy Page, after all, and he sounds a lot more into it than he did or has in a long while. The songs subside into an amiable competence pretty soon, but there's nothing really despicable here apart from Feeling Hot and some of Coverdale's shriller croaking. The first 5 songs are nifty in their traditional hard-rocking/power ballading way and while the rest feels disposable, it isn't wretched.